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BC Forces TV and Radio Broadcasters to Give Up ‘Voicing Their Personal Opinions’. Dragos Vicol's Explanations

25 March 2020
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The Broadcasting Council issued a Decision which forces TV and radio journalists not to ‘voice and favor their personal opinions’ in addressing the topics on the coronavirus pandemic during the state of emergency and to include, compulsory, the authorities’ position in the broadcast products. This Decision was criticized by representatives of the journalistic guild and members of the civil society, some of whom described it as censorship. On the other hand, the Chair of the BC, Dragos Vicol, argued that the document complied with the law, the media being required to promote only ‘endorsed opinions’.

After the Commission for Emergency Situations gave the Broadcasting Council the right to hold deliberative meetings with at least four members and to take decisions with the vote of at least three people, the Chair Dragos Vicol issued on Tuesday, March 24, the Decision No 2 which imposes on the TV and radio broadcasters a number of obligations regarding how they are to tackle the subject of the new coronavirus pandemic.

The Provision of the BC Decision

The Decisions says that the presenters, anchors and editors shall refrain, during the state of emergency, from ‘voicing their personal opinions as well as from putting in their own words their arbitrary views in coverages on the COVID-19 pandemic, both in national and international context’. It also states that the only ‘reliable, truthful, impartial and balanced’ are the competent public authorities in the country and abroad (the Commission for Emergency Situations of the Republic of Moldova, the Government of the Republic of Moldova, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Social Protection, the World Health Organization). The journalists are thus forced to publish the official position of the authorities in their materials.

In addition, BC demands of all audiovisual media services providers to avoid the sensational and ‘the infodemic characterized by over-abundance of information that might create confusion’, as well as to ‘combat the contamination of the public with fake news posted on social media’.

The decision impacts all those who are subject to the Audiovisual Media Services Code: media service providers and distributors, bodies supervising the work of public media service providers, video sharing platform services providers, media service providers using a frequency granted by the competent public authority, which uses a slot and those who use a satellite uplink or who use an internet link located on the territory of the Republic of Moldova.

‘This Decision Goes Beyond the Legal Framework’

The document was criticized by several members of the journalist guild and civil society. Petru Macovei, the Executive Director of the Association of Independent Press (API), believes that the broadcasting authority made an abusive decision. ‘It is obvious that the decision goes beyond the legal framework, if we look at the Audiovisual Media Services Code, but also at the Decisions of the Commission for Emergency Situations. It is a very clear abuse by the BC in relation to the broadcasters’, said Macovei.

He highlighted that professional journalists must reflect the views of all parties on a subject, but given that ‘the authorities, instead of providing information, hide it most of the time’, the journalists are forced to resort to alternative sources. ‘The way this Decision is worded, it actually forbids journalists to publish any information that is not confirmed by the authorities. What are we supposed to do when the authorities keep silent and refuse stubbornly to provide information? Should we not inform the public? This would not be fair at all. Moreover, this decision restricts the right of media outlets and journalists to issue value judgments. This is undemocratic and does not fit in the format of the state of emergency’, commented Petru Macovei.

This decision was also criticized on social media. ‘When I read it, I felt dumbfounded. From now on, I must not talk anymore and be careful what I ask on the show! And the only credible sources to ask are the Government and the ministries! It is my understanding that investigations are forbidden! Coronavirus brings along censorship in the media, not just the military armored cars!’, wrote Mariana Rata from TV8.

Her colleague, Natalia Morari, had a few questions for the Council:

In its turn, political scientist Dionis Cenusa stated that although the BC may ask journalists for official sources to be reflected in the media, the last decision is abusive, even for a state of emergency. ‘It is a state of emergency, not a state of censorship’, concluded the expert on Facebook.

The PAS MP, Radu Marian, rated the decision as ‘hallucinating’:

This Decision ‘Does Not Bring Censorship’

On the other hand, Ion Bunduchi, the Executive Director of the Electronic Press Association from Moldova (APEL), thinks that the decision of the BC ‘does not bring censorship’. However, he acknowledged that the wording is somewhat ‘clumsy’. For example, the part about ‘combating the contamination of the public with fake news posted on social media’, because one can wonder ‘how can media service providers combat contamination of the public?’.

‘But, beyond the clumsiness, the decision largely contains existing, legal and deontological professional rules. Perhaps this should be taken as an additional warning and as an additional appeal for accuracy and justice. After all, the BC should also take measures against the pandemic’, said Bunduchi.

The expert believes that if this Decision was issued as an urge for accuracy, then it should have appeared earlier. ‘The mass-media might not have abounded with information on the pandemic from the Presidency Office, but there was information provided by empowered institutions also listed in the Decision’, argued the APEL representative.

How the Chair of BC Explains the Decision

The Chair of the BC, Dragos Vicol, stated for Media Azi that the respective decision was signed by him, after having consulted and agreed it initially with the other five members. According to him, the decision was approved in-camera in order to keep away the members of the Council from the risk of getting the coronavirus.

Vicol argued that the decision was made on the basis of the Audiovisual Media Services Code. He disapproved of the criticism regarding censorship and stressed that journalists are not allowed to broadcast thei personal opinions only. ‘The opinions must be endorsed. This means that they must be substantiated, serious, and based on real facts. I think that it is common sense not to disseminate random information, of dubious origin, based on odd sources and that, being anonymous, carry misunderstandings and can be very harmful to the public opinion’, explained the Chair of BC.

When the BC Chair was asked what happens if, for instance, only experts are invited to a TV show, with no representatives of the authorities, his answer was that in such cases, it shall be mandatory for the opinion of state officials to be communicated. ‘From my point of view, all possible and especially impossible measures must be taken to get an opinion from the legal representatives. (...) How can we be sure that the information provided by some person is checked and substantiated? That’s why there is an authority in the state that assume liability. The rest of the experts, including those from the civil society, former ministers, have no liability, not a criminal one even. We cannot disseminate impressions, attitudes, visions that are not based on anything. The state must have a legally congruent position. This is why I believe that the position of the state must be sought. It it is impossible to obtain it, no other opinions will be published; it is the state’s opinions that must be communicated because it is a state of emergency’, argued Dragos Vicol.

The document issued by the BC does not provide for any penalties for the TV and radio stations which, in the authority's opinion, would violate the provisions. ‘If we see that someone does not want to apply these provisions, in bad faith, we shall give then other details regarding penalties’, said Vicol.

According to the law, during a state of emergency, the information and official releases of the public authorities regarding the state of emergency, martial law and war should be broadcast by the media service providers ‘fully and as a matter of priority’ and presented ‘promptly from the moment of their announcement’.